Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
It’s a well-known story in Russia. But I assume that most non-Russians haven’t heard it. And in this age of ours when Russia appears to be instigating white supremacist movements abroad, maybe even Russians need a reminder.
Abram Hannibal was a black man born in today’s Cameroon in 1696. At the age of seven he was kidnapped by Ottoman Turks before being presented to the court of Peter the Great as a gift. In Russia he came to be known as Abram Petrovich Gannibal (the Russian language has a way of changing Hs to Gs, so much so that “Harry Potter” in Russian is “Garry Potter”). Peter took a liking to the young African boy and took him into his household. He faithfully served the Tsar and later his daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, first as a valet and eventually as a general in the Russian army.
Fast forward a hundred years to Abram’s great-grandson Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin. Like so many Russian aristocrats of his day, as a child Pushkin knew French better than he knew Russian, a defect he would remedy soon enough. By the age of fifteen he had published his first poem and gained a literary reputation. But his politics were far too liberal for the Tsarist autocracy, and he got himself exiled to the Crimea, Moldova, and the Caucasus, that romantic part of Russian imperial territory where I am as of this writing, a place that would inspire other Russian writers as well, like Mikhail Lermontov.
Allowed to return to Russia but still politically suspect, Pushkin established himself as Russia’s greatest writer. In 1831, he married the famed beauty Natalia Goncharova, and the two remain today the great romantic couple of Russian imagination.
Just six years later, though, rumors began to spread that Natalia had engaged in an affair with a Frenchman named Georges d’Anthès, and Pushkin was honor-bound to challenge d’Anthès to a duel. D’Anthès killed him. Pushkin was 37.
Despite his early death, it is difficult to overstate Pushkin’s literary legacy. Any Russian school child can recite verses of Pushkin. He was the father of Russian literature and even the Russian language in its modern form. In that he was like Shakespeare, the father of much of modern English usage, except the Russians revere Pushkin much more than even the English revere Shakespeare. When it comes to Russian writers, English speakers tend to get more excited about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but that is only because they wrote prose fiction, which was much easier to translate than Pushkin’s subtle poetry.
As a college student, I spent the summer of 2002 in St. Petersburg. I visited the famous bookstore, Dom Knigi, “The House of the Book,” and bought a collection of Pushkin’s prose and poetry. I never could read the whole collection, but there was one poem I read with the help of a dictionary. I won’t pretend that I’ve never used the opening stanza, which I memorized, to impress former-Soviet girls at cocktail parties:
Я помню чудное мгновенье:
Because of course every Russian-speaker knows the poem.
And to think, neither the modern Russian language nor most of Russian literature would have happened, had a young Cameroonian boy not gotten kidnapped and sent to St. Petersburg in the early 18th century.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."